I went with S and J to the University of Michigan Computer and Video Game Archive (CVGA) on the UM North Campus in the basement of the Duderstadt Center. They were celebrating their fifth anniversary with cupcakes and a Mario tournament. The boys had a chance to play games, and I had a chance to talk to David S. Carter (aka firstname.lastname@example.org) about the collection. Here are some notes.
There are about 5000 games in the collection, and about half of them are donated. An annual collection budget of about $13,000 buys new games and the occasional old console from eBay. The archive has a near complete collection of US consoles, and Dave said they are looking to expand their international coverage. One of their latest acquisitions was a DVD system that plays only one title. The archive would like to improve its collection of handheld games.
The biggest challenge of the next five years is with digital rights management (DRM). The DRM systems envisioned would lock a game to a particular piece of console hardware, making it impossible to have used games and very hard for a library to add a title to a collection. For network-delivered games like Steam it's equally hard for the library to spend $10 on a license, when licenses negotiated by libraries for things like electronic versions of journals are usually for much more.
Dave said the archive was pretty much where they want to be after 5 years. He knew they were on the right track when they got space in the library even before they had a budget. The challenge of next five years is less collection building and more about building connections across campus and around the world to other research collections. He compared the collection to early film and video collections, now standard at all research libraries, but once considered a novelty.
Other comparable collections are at the University of Texas at Austin and at Stanford. Public libraries so not tend to have research collections, preferring to either use video games strictly for events or to have a circulating collection where you check out current games like any other video or music media.
I asked Dave about the Internet Archive's online gaming collection, and especially about the role of emulation in preserving games. He told me that emulation does not preserve original game play, especially the ergonomics of controllers. Playing on original game hardware with original video hardware gives you an accurate rendition of original game play experience. (Besides, you can't play Duck Hunt without an old fashioned TV because the game depends on sensing the scan lines on the TV.) Some old games are very hard to enjoy on original hardware and the limitations of the controls, not the game itself, are what trips up your enjoyment.